North Carolina Adopts Strict Test for Internet Jurisdiction
Posted in Internet

Jurisdiction is one of many issues that has become increasingly complicated in a world of web-based communications. Courts across the country have wrestled with the question of where a person who posts content on the Internet about another may be sued. Some litigants have argued that since the Internet may be accessed anywhere in the world, a person who places content on the Internet does so at the peril of being sued anywhere. Such approach would risk chilling Internet speech as bloggers and blog hosts may find themselves sued in far-flung locales, as potential plaintiffs troll the country shopping for the most favorable venue.

As a result, most courts have rejected this expansive view of Internet jurisdiction as inconsistent with the federal Constitution’s due process protections. In a decision issued June 17, 2008, the North Carolina Court of Appeals adopted the stricter test, one first articulated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, a federal court that is based in Richmond, Virginia and includes Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. This recent case involved a Georgia resident who posted messages on an Internet bulletin board about a North Carolina resident and businessman. The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that this alone was insufficient to subject the out-of-state poster to the jurisdiction of North Carolina’s courts. The posts, which the plaintiff contended were false and defamatory, were made by a Georgia resident while in Georgia.

In reaching this decision, the North Carolina court applied the following test: did the defendant, through the Internet posts at issue, “manifest an intent to target and focus on North Carolina readers?” The court therefore rejected the plaintiff’s theory that the Georgia resident was subject to jurisdiction in North Carolina simply because he engaged in electronic activity accessible in North Carolina about a North Carolina resident that would affect the plaintiff’s reputation in North Carolina. Instead, something more than an Internet posting and accessibility in North Carolina is required—the plaintiff must show that the speaker targeted or focused upon a North Carolina audience. Because the plaintiff had not met this standard, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the complaint.

This case is significant because it is an example of an appellate court continuing to grapple with adapting pre-Internet doctrines to an Internet-based world. With this decision, North Carolina joined other jurisdictions in holding that something more than a mere impact felt in North Carolina was required to subject an out-of-state Internet poster to jurisdiction here. What is the upshot for news directors in North Carolina? This decision affirms that you may be hailed to court in any state to which you direct your Internet content, which may or may not be coextensive with your broadcast radius. If you target readers outside your home state with your Internet content generally, or with a particular story or blog thread, you need to satisfy yourself that you do not face liability under that state’s law.

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